Scarcely had Egbert established his supremacy over the other princes of the heptarchy, when he found himself assailed by hordes of barbarians from the shores of Norway, Denmark, and the islands of the Baltic. They were the near kinsmen of the Jutes and Angles, and spoke a language not so widely dissimilar but that the one was intelligible to the other. Unaccustomed to the peaceful art of agriculture, they sought subsistence by plundering neighbouring shores. We know them as Danes, Scandinavians, or Norsemen. Their first appearance in this country was in 789, when "three ships of Northmen from Hæretha land "came on shore in Wessex, defeated the local forces, and embarked again with their plunder. In 795 and the year following they made descents on the coast of Northumbria, sacked the towns and villages, and plundered the monasteries of Lindisfarne and Wearmouth. In 832 a more formidable host landed in Sheppy, and ravaged the whole of Kent; the following year they came again in thirty-five ships. Egbert led his army against them, and the Chronicle informs us "there was muckle slaughter," but the Danes held the field. From this time their incursions became almost as regular as the summer season, and misery beyond description was inflicted on the people of the district which received their unwelcome visit. They delighted in acts of cruelty, and in their thirst for blood they spared neither age, sex, nor condition. Tearing harmless babes from their mothers' breasts, they were wont, it is said, to toss them to and fro like shuttlecocks, catching them on the points of their lances.
As brave and intrepid on land as their Teutonic kinsmen, they surpassed them in maritime adventure and enterprise. Their home was the sea, on which they spent the greater portion of their lives, despising the tranquil enjoyments of peace. From their infancy they were inured to the perils of the ocean, and as the law of primogeniture conveyed the whole patrimony of the family to the eldest son, the rest of the brothers were consigned to a life of piracy. The sea was their heritage, and with their ships and swords they were expected to win both wealth and reputation. Their religion resembled that of the ancient Saxons, but they clung more tenaciously to the worship of Odin and Thor than their Teutonic neighbours had done. Their civil polity, too, differed but little, and consequently their permanent settlement here effected no very material change in the laws and government of the country. Such was the new enemy against which the English found it impossible to protect their shores. There was no community of interest among the different kingdoms to ensure combined action, no central organization, no army to cope with the foe. The people of each state looked to its own protection alone; they did not combine to drive the enemy out of the country; they drove him, if possible, into the neighbouring kingdom, and then returned to their homes. Hitherto the Norsemen had been content with the plunder they could carry off to their own barren shores, but they now began to manifest an intention to dispossess the Saxon of the fertile fields of Britain.
Foremost amongst the sea-kings, as the leaders of these piratical expeditions were termed, was Radnar Lodbroy, whose depredations spread terror through all the countries laved by the North Sea. Gaul, powerful as she was, sought his forbearance by a payment of 7,000 pounds of silver, and the intrepid and daring Norseman then directed his fleet towards England. Northumbria was at that time the victim of dynastic quarrels, and consequently of disunion. Two competitors, Osbert and Ælla, were wasting the strength of the kingdom in order to secure the crown. At this juncture Lodbrog's vessels were driven by a storm on the coast, but the plunderers were defeated by a superior force under Ælla, and Ragnar himself was taken prisoner. The fearless and hardy Norseman, whose name had long been a terror to every town and village along the coast, was doomed by his captor to a lingering death in a dungeon, where he was stung by venomous snakes. Ragnar was a poet as well as a warrior, and the death song he sent forth in his last moments is still preserved in Danish literature.
The death of Ragnar stirred up the bitterest feelings of animosity in the breasts of his countryman, and Ingvar and Ubba, his sons, vowed vengeance on the land where he had so cruelly died. Eight sea-kings and twenty jarls lent their aid, and the combined forces landed without opposition on the coast of East Anglia, in 866. Deeming their numbers too small for the enterprise on which they had come, they fortified their position and awaited reinforcements from the Baltic. In the spring of the following year they sailed up the Humber to York, and the terrified burghers without a show of resistance opened their gates to admit them. The Northumbrians were divided into two factions, but prudence suggested the necessity of combination in this hour of danger; and the rival claimants sheathed their swords of private ambition, and united their forces against the common foe. They surprised the enemy near York, drove them into the city, and breaking the slender fortifications, rushed without order or discipline into the town. Nerved by the energy of despair, the Danes redoubled their efforts, and defeated them with great slaughter. Osbert was among the slain, and Ælla fell a captive into the hands of the enemy. Ingvar and Ubba now took their revenge on the man who had so cruelly tortured their father. They cut the figure of an eagle upon his back, divided his ribs from the spine to tear out his lungs, and added to his torture by sprinkling salt upon the wounds.
Northumbria was now in the power of the heathens who erected Deira into a new Danish kingdom, and Bernicia they handed over to an English puppet named Egbert. From this time Northumbria disappears as an Anglo-Saxon kingdom, and the shadow on its dial of material progress was thrown back several degrees.
The indifference with which the other kingdoms witnessed the conquest of Northumbria stimulated the Danes to further aggression. In 870, they overran East Anglia, destroyed the monasteries and churches, cruelly murdered Edmund, the under-king, and annexed his dominions as a second Danish kingdom. They next turned their arms against Mercia and Wessex, and for three years harried those kingdoms. The people of Mercia offered little resistance to the foe, but the West Saxons vigorously contested every inch of ground, and defeated them in several battles. Burhred of Mercia was driven from his throne, and the Dane ruled over his dominions. The whole of the Anglo-Saxon territories was now subject to the Northmen except the country south of the Thames, and the district north of the Tyne. But Halfdene the Dane, in 876, landed with his host in the Tyne, and completed the conquest of Bernicia.
Half-Celtic Wessex alone of all the heptarchy made any effectual resistance to the further encroachments of the Danes. The Angles of Northumbria and East Anglia submitted with scarcely a blow, as if they were indifferent whether they had for their overlord a West Saxon or a Dane. The latter, indeed, was a nearer kinsman of the Angle than was the Saxon. In their old home they had been near neighbours, and the dialects they spoke were mutually comprehensible, whilst the Saxon was more foreign both in blood and in speech. Thus it was, the two peoples readily coalesced, and the distinction between Northumbrian and Dane soon disappeared.
The renowned ALFRED stopped for a while the tide of Danish conquest, and by his splendid victory over Guthrum recovered Wessex and Mercia. The heathen king and his principal officers consenting to become Christians were permitted to retire into Northumbria, and fifteen years of comparative quietness followed. But the Danes still held the northern provinces, which were ruled by Sihtric and Nigel. Edward, the son of Alfred, pushed his conquests further north and captured "Manchester in Northumbria." Subsequently he penetrated as far as York, gained a decisive victory, and all the petty princes consented to receive him for their everlord.
ATHELSTAN, his son, succeeded, and to secure the friendship of the Danes, he gave his sister in marriage to Sihtric, their king. The Dane, however, did not long survive the union, and Athelstan thereupon seized his dominions and annexed them to his own. The two sons of Sihtric, by a former wife, fled before the superior power of the Anglo-Saxon, Godfrid into Scotland, Anlaf into Ireland; and Athelstan became undisputed master of Northumbria. "He then bowed to himself," says the Chronicle, "all the kings who were in the island; first, Howel, King of the West Welch; and Constantine, King of Scots; and Owen, King of Gwent (South Wales); and Ealdred, son of Ealdulf, of Bamborough; and with pledge and with oaths sware they peace, and forsook every kind of Heathendom."
The proud spirit of the Scot chafed under his enforced submission, and be threw off his allegiance, but Athelstan invaded his dominion by land and sea, and reduced the recalcitrant king to subjection. The integrity of the kingdom was again threatened in 937, by a formidable confederacy. The Scots, the Cumbrian Britons, the Welsh, and the men of Cornwall, the lords of Bamborough, and the Danes throughout the north and east all rose to assert their independence. Anlaf, King of the Dublin Danes, came with a fleet of six hundred and fifteen vessels to their assistance. The hostile armies met at a place called in the Saxon Chronicle Brunanburh, the site of which has not been identified, though it was probably somewhere in Northumbria, and a fierce and sanguinary encounter took place. The battle lasted till sundown, and never was victory more complete. Anlaf escaped, but he left behind five confederate sea-kings, seven jarls, and many thousands of his followers weltering in their gore.
The terror inspired by this victory curbed for a while the turbulent spirit of the Danes, but scarcely had the "Conqueror," as they were wont to style Athelstan, passed from the earth, than the old leaven of revolt again broke out; and Anlaf was invited over from Ireland to hazard, for a third time, the fortune of war. EDMUND, who had succeeded to the throne on the death of his brother, hastened to oppose the invaders. But he was young and inexperienced in the art of war, and the Dane again became master of the northern provinces. Anlaf ruled over Deira, and his nephew, Reginald, over Bernicia. A few years later Edmund drove both of them out of the country. He also subdued the Cambrian Britons, but tarnished his victory by an act of cruelty, and handed the little kingdom of Cumbria over to Malcolm of Scotland, on condition that he would assist him against his enemies, whether by land or sea. Edmund soon after fell a victim to the dagger of the assassin, while celebrating the feast of St. Augustine.
In the following reign, Northumbria again occupies the principal place in military history. Eric, brother of Haco of Norway, driven from his home on account of his crimes, had long led the life of a pirate. Returning to Northumbria, where he had once been the vassal of Athelstan, the Danes asserted their independence, and acknowledged him their king. Provoked by their perfidy, EDRED, who had succeeded his brother, ravaged their country, but when returning, laden with spoil, the rebels fell suddenly upon his rear-guard at Castleford, near Pontefract, and almost annihilated it. Enraged at this disaster, Edred returned to the work of devastation, burnt the minster at Ripon, and threatened the whole country with fire and sword; Eric was banished, and the people appeased the royal wrath by valuable presents. Edred abolished the mimic show of royalty in Northumbria, and incorporated that province with the rest of the kingdom. For its more easy government it was divided into shires, ridings, and wapentakes, over which he placed officers of his own selection. All these were under the superintendence of Osulf, whom he created the first Earl of Northumbria, with York for his capital seat.
Edred died in 955, and was succeeded by EDWY, his nephew, the son of Athelstan, who, at his father's death, had been passed by on account of his youth. He had scarcely reached the years of adolescence, yet his habits were so vicious and depraved as to outrage all the tender feelings of morality. The Northumbrians and the Mercians broke into open revolt, and Edwy only saved his life by escaping into Wessex. The revolting provinces chose EDGAR, his brother, for their king, and England was again divided into two sovereigaties. At his death in 959 Edgar succeeded to his dominions, and became sole monarch of England. Guided by the wise counsel of Dunstan, Archbishop of Canterbury, his reign was one of continued peace and prosperity. On the death of Osulf he divided the district into two earldoms, one reaching from the Humber to the Tees, or, as some say, to the Tyne, and the other extending northward from that river to the Forth; but the two were again united under Waltheof, the second earl.
Edgar was markedly partial to the naturalised Danes of the north, and granted them a large measure of home rule. In a witan assembled at York, he thus addressed them :- " It is my will," he said, "that, with respect to worldly rights, the Danes choose for themselves such laws as are best; and that the English observe the statutes which I and my counsellors have added to the ancient dooms. But one thing I would have to be common to all my people, English, Danes, and Britons, in every part of my empire, that both rich and poor possess in peace what they have rightly acquired; and that no thief find a place where he may secure the property which he has stolen." Thus though Northumbria became an integral part of the kingdom, without the ornamental appendage of a vassal king, it was allowed to retain a certain amount of local independence, with the enjoyment of its own Danish laws and lawmen. In Edgar, Anglo-Saxon royalty reached the climax of its power; its attainment had been the work of years, but its decline was rapid.